Valencia’s Casa Consistorial
The Alchemy of Eclectic Architecture
It was on 9 October 1238 when King Jaime I triumphantly entered the Moorish petty-kingdom of "Balansinya" and instated a system of government called els jurats [sworn magistrates], of Roman inspiration, which consolidated the local executive power in a small number of nobles who exercised their authority from sumptuous homes and buildings.
Royal and feudal privileges explain the rise of a municipal institution that would have its own headquarters and from the year 1311 would occupy an exceptional site on the street known as Les Corts.
That primeval Casa de la Ciudad, or Council House, stills remains in the graphic images of the city's cartography (mapmaker Tosca, et al.), but only very few pieces have actually survived its demolition, such as a superb Gothic ceiling that was disassembled and reinstalled at the city's Silk Exchange, La Lonja.
The demolition of the original palace in 1854, when the municipal chambers were transferred to the Royal Teaching House of the Archbishop Andrés Mayoral, propitiated an expansion in the early 20th century to include part of the lot neighbouring Convent of San Francisco.
On 30 June 1906, Dr. José Sanchis Bergón, mayor of Valencia at that time, laid the first stone of what would become the future Casa Consistorial, whose construction was delayed over a number of years, and was then even interrupted in 1936 with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
The Municipal Palace today occupies a full block, of a trapezoidal shape, and includes the primitive Teaching House. It has carefully construed volumes along its noble façade facing the main square, which was erected in the second and third decades of the last century.
The project, which underwent sizeable modifications and suffered many delays, was designed in successive phases by the architects Carlos Carbonell and Francisco Mora, who created an imposing construction, capable of affirming the political prestige and economic vigour of the capital.
The majestic architecture, the luxurious decoration (paintings, statutes...) and its extraordinary documentary holdings (Feudal Laws, Maritime Consulate, etc.) attest to the ambition of the governors of Valencia, who also promoted large-scale urban regeneration schemes.
The Teaching House, with its cloister-like format generated from a Tuscan order patio exhibiting a Neo-Classical repertoire was ignored by Carbonell and Mora, who took recourse to a Neo-Renaissance language with Baroque ornamentation to design the noble façade of the new civic palace of the capital on the Turia River.
To this end, the original monarchical structure was twinned with a three-storey annexed structure that sits in impeccable symmetry with the plaza, with an axiality defined by an elevated square tower crowned by a wondrous clock topped with a metal belltower with bells installed in 1930.
Since 1967 the majestic entryway sustains a large ceremonial balcony in stone designed by the architect José Luis Testor Gómez. Supporting the 12 Doric columns decorated with a delicate wooden coffered ceiling, this is a privileged stage setting for the cultural and social life of the city.
As a backdrop to the tribune, there is a grand accessway, finished with a round arch on whose spandrels can be seen two delicate marble mid-reliefs representing the allegories of Administration and Justice, sculpted by the exquisite hand of Mariano Benlliure in his workshop located in the port district of El Grao.
This exceptional master of realism also undertook the sculptural ensemble crowning the entablature, where which two naked female figures symbolising the Arts and Letters sit back to back with the city’s bronze coat of arms.
Equally notable are the two tower-like bodies projecting like buttresses from the main block. The figurines of Justice and Prudence are attributed to Carmelo Vicent, whereas Strength and Temperance are the works of Vicente Beltrán. Comprising Plato's Republic, Cicero's De officiis and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, their incorporation into the rich imaginary façade of the main building testifies to the moralising desires of their artifices as well as to the iconographic discourse of the entire complex.
The rest of the building front spreads out over two wings that are capped by corner towers, whose circular shape facilitates their articulation at the end-point, especially on Calle Sangre, as the connection with the epidermis of the primitive Teaching House is more evident here.
The towers rise up an additional storey and are then domed with a copper-like skin with metallic reflections and are capped by thinnish lantern structures. All this lends the elevation a delicate palatial aspect of Renaissance inspiration.
The compulsory interruption of the Civil War did not prevent the original programme from being executed, practically always under the direction of Francisco Mora, as in 1924 he drew up the projects for the most emblematic architectural elements: the clock tower, the Imperial staircase, the Ballroom, Fireplace, Pompeian patio, Mayor's Office, Council Room, etc.
This provided the typological clarity of the building façade as it was initially conceived, incorporating the pre-existing building complex to close it off, providing a civic stage-front using rhetorical and Cyclopean volumetrics.
The central ingress provides compositional symmetry to configure a grandiose hall that features a solemn Imperial staircase. This was conceived as an articulator, and its luxurious composition – with abundant Italian marble species, a refined lucerne and a rigorous Neo-Classical styling – gives it a fully representative character.
In May 1937 it was seriously damaged by bombing from Savoia-Marchetti S.M.79 aircraft from Mussolini's Legionnaires, who periodically air-raided the city, as it was then the capital of the Republic.
In 1939, in the aftermath of the war, Mayor Joaquín Manglano, the Baron of Cárcer, ordered Mora to proceed with its reconstruction, as a result of which a marble image of the Sacred Heart was accommodated in the entranceway, the work of the sculptor Ramón Mateu.
In July 1941 a decorative skylight was put in place to illuminate the vestibule from above, commissioned to the prestigious lighting firm Maumejean, which won a Grand Prize at the World Fair in Barcelona (1929).
The architecture of the Municipal Palace has mirror images in other Spanish capitals that also experienced the influence of French and Italian masters brought in by the Bourbons, and facilitating the triumph of first the Neo-Classical, and later Eclecticism.
The firm will to frame the political ambitions of a middle class that faced the challenges of the turn of the century, inspired by a true Renaixença in almost all fields, explains Mora's search for solid typological references.
The Plenary Council Room is the space with the greatest institutional and iconographic content, conceived as a hemicircle in clear reference to Spanish protocolary parliamentary chambers – the Congress of the Deputies – and the French National Assembly.
The choice of a semicircular floorspace in which the ascending rows of seats or cavea is distributed around the stage or proscenium, as in classical Greek theatres, makes Mora introduce more volume into the cloistered patio of the former Teaching House.
With seating for 109 persons arranged into successive rows rising up in steps, terminating in an exquisite gallery conceived as a deambulatory, the hemicircle is surprisingly eclectic and solemn in style.
The nobility of the materials used in the interior is eloquent: pillars and columns are in German granite and both the portals and the presidential podium are in Italian marble. The economic vigour of the region and new improvements in rail transport facilitated the use of minerals from quarries that were so far removed from the hinterlands of Valencia.
The abundant ornamentation is in bronze on capitals, bases, architraves and cornices. Mora also designed all the furniture using intertropical wood such as mahogany, and Iberian trees such as oak.
Of note amongst the paintings here are some allegories of Valencia in Art Decó style and the oil portrait of King Juan Carlos I done in 1976 by Alex Alemany, which presided the Ballroom until the enthroning of the former’s son Felipe VI.
The triple height of the hemicircle stands out in the complex, followed closely by the sumptuous Ballroom. Rectangular in shape and surrounded by galleries communicating it with diverse side rooms, its double height superimposed by a lowered vault gives rise to a highly Baroque festivity space.
The abundant fenestration with polychrome glass panes contributes luminosity to the concept of this room as an isolated pavilion. This decoration looks somewhat overdone, with its Jonic columns on the lower level, over which are set an architrave and a continuous frieze.
The ceiling is decorated with enormous elliptical panels with oil paintings representing allegorical visions of the Earth, the sky and the Mediterranean Sea. Hanging from here are two gigantic Rococo chandeliers in carved rock crystal, which sit at the level of the twelve mid-reliefs in marble that occupy the spandrels of the six arches corresponding to the longer sides of the room.
The Municipal Palace is an authentic urban icon that holds some of the best-loved identifying symbols of the Valencian people, such as the Royal Senyera, or regional flag, the testimony of the privileged recognition of the Crown of Aragón to the city of Valencia.
Listed as a historic-artistic monument in 1962, the Palace is one of the most representative constructions of Valencian eclectic architecture and its flourishing heyday in the early 20th century.